By SCOTT SHANE
Published: October 16, 2009
WASHINGTON Is the Central Intelligence Agency covering up some dark
secret about the assassination of John F. Kennedy?
Probably not. But you would not know it from the C.I.A.'s behavior.
For six years, the agency has fought in federal court to keep secret
hundreds of documents from 1963, when an anti-Castro Cuban group it
paid clashed publicly with the soon-to-be assassin, Lee Harvey
Oswald. The C.I.A. says it is only protecting legitimate secrets. But
because of the agency's history of stonewalling assassination
inquiries, even researchers with no use for conspiracy thinking
question its stance.
The files in question, some released under direction of the court and
hundreds more that are still secret, involve the curious career of
George E. Joannides, the case officer who oversaw the dissident
Cubans in 1963. In 1978, the agency made Mr. Joannides the liaison to
the House Select Committee on Assassinations but never told the
committee of his earlier role.
That concealment has fueled suspicion that Mr. Joannides's real
assignment was to limit what the House committee could learn about
C.I.A. activities. The agency's deception was first reported in 2001
by Jefferson Morley, who has doggedly pursued the files ever since,
represented by James H. Lesar, a Washington lawyer specializing in
Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.
"The C.I.A.'s conduct is maddening," said Mr. Morley, 51, a former
Washington Post reporter and the author of a 2008 biography of a
former C.I.A. station chief in Mexico.
After years of meticulous reporting on Mr. Joannides, who died at age
68 in 1990, he is convinced that there is more to learn.
"I know there's a story here," Mr. Morley said. "The confirmation is
that the C.I.A. treats these documents as extremely sensitive."
Mr. Morley's quest has gained prominent supporters, including John R.
Tunheim, a federal judge in Minnesota who served in 1994 and 1995 as
chairman of the Assassination Records Review Board, created by
Congress to unearth documents related to the case.
"I think we were probably misled by the agency," Judge Tunheim said,
referring to the Joannides records. "This material should be released."
Gerald Posner, the author of an anti-conspiracy account of the
Kennedy assassination, "Case Closed" (Random House, 1993), said the
C.I.A.'s withholding such aged documents was "a perfect example of
why nobody trusts the agency."
"It feeds the conspiracy theorists who say, 'You're hiding
something," ' Mr. Posner said.
After losing an appeals court decision in Mr. Morley's lawsuit, the
C.I.A. released material last year confirming Mr. Joannides's deep
involvement with the anti-Castro Cubans who confronted Oswald. But
the agency is withholding 295 specific documents from the 1960s and
'70s, while refusing to confirm or deny the existence of many others,
saying their release would cause "extremely grave damage" to national
"The methods of defeating or deterring covert action in the 1960s and
1970s can still be instructive to the United States' current
enemies," a C.I.A. official wrote in a court filing.
An agency spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, said the C.I.A. had opened to
Judge Tunheim's board all files relevant to the assassination and
denied that it was trying to avoid embarrassment. "The record doesn't
support that, any more than it supports conspiracy theories,
offensive on their face, that the C.I.A. had a hand in President
Kennedy's death," Mr. Gimigliano said.
C.I.A. secrecy has been hotly debated this year, with agency
officials protesting the Obama administration's decision to release
legal opinions describing brutal interrogation methods. The House
speaker, Nancy Pelosi, came under attack from Republicans after she
accused the C.I.A. of misleading Congress about waterboarding,
adding, "They mislead us all the time."
On the Kennedy assassination, the deceptions began in 1964 with the
Warren Commission. The C.I.A. hid its schemes to kill Fidel Castro
and its ties to the anti-Castro Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil,
or Cuban Student Directorate, which received $50,000 a month in
C.I.A. support during 1963.
In August 1963, Oswald visited a New Orleans shop owned by a
directorate official, feigning sympathy with the group's goal of
ousting Mr. Castro. A few days later, directorate members found
Oswald handing out pro-Castro pamphlets and got into a brawl with
him. Later that month, he debated the anti-Castro Cubans on a local
In the years since Oswald was named as the assassin, speculation
about who might have been behind him has never ended, with various
theories focusing on Mr. Castro, the mob, rogue government agents or
myriad combinations of the above. Mr. Morley, one of many writers to
become entranced by the story, insists he has no theory and is
seeking only the facts.
His lawsuit has uncovered the central role in overseeing directorate
activities of Mr. Joannides, the deputy director for psychological
warfare at the C.I.A.'s Miami station, code-named JM/WAVE. He worked
closely with directorate leaders, documents show, corresponding with
them under pseudonyms, paying their travel expenses and achieving an
"important degree of control" over the group, as a July 1963 agency
fitness report put it.
Fifteen years later, Mr. Joannides turned up again as the agency's
representative to the House assassinations committee. Dan Hardway,
then a law student working for the committee, recalled Mr. Joannides
as "a cold fish," who firmly limited access to documents. Once, Mr.
Hardway remembered, "he handed me a thin file and just stood there. I
blew up, and he said, 'This is all you're going to get.' "
But neither Mr. Hardway nor the committee's staff director, G. Robert
Blakey, had any idea that Mr. Joannides had played a role in the very
anti-Castro activities from 1963 that the panel was scrutinizing.
When Mr. Morley first informed him about it a decade ago, Mr. Blakey
was flabbergasted. "If I'd known his role in 1963, I would have put
Joannides under oath he would have been a witness, not a
facilitator," said Mr. Blakey, a law professor at the University of
Notre Dame. "How do we know what he didn't give us?"
After Oliver Stone's 1991 film "J.F.K." fed speculation about the
Kennedy assassination, Congress created the Assassination Records
Review Board to release documents. But because the board, too, was
not told of Mr. Joannides's 1963 work, it did not peruse his records,
said Judge Tunheim, the chairman.
"If we'd known of his role in Miami in 1963, we would have pressed
for all his records," Judge Tunheim said.
No matter what comes of Mr. Morley's case in Federal District Court
in Washington, Mr. Tunheim said he might ask the current C.I.A.
director, Leon E. Panetta, to release the records, even if the names
of people who are still alive must be redacted for privacy.
What motive could C.I.A. officials have to bury the details of Mr.
Joannides's work for so long? Did C.I.A. officers or their Cuban
contacts know more about Oswald than has been revealed? Or was the
agency simply embarrassed by brushes with the future assassin like
the Dallas F.B.I. officials who, after the assassination, destroyed a
handwritten note Oswald had previously left for an F.B.I. agent?
Or has Mr. Morley spent a decade on a wild goose chase?
Max Holland, who is writing a history of the Warren Commission, said
the agency might be trying to preserve the principle of secrecy.
"If you start going through the files of every C.I.A. officer who had
anything to do with anything that touched the assassination, that
would have no end," Mr. Holland said.
Mr. Posner, the anti-conspiracy author, said that if there really
were something explosive involving the C.I.A. and President Kennedy,
it would not be in the files not even in the documents the C.I.A.
has fought to keep secret.
"Most conspiracy theorists don't understand this," Mr. Posner said.
"But if there really were a C.I.A. plot, no documents would exist."